Run time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Stars: Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Emma Thompson
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Late Night star Emma Thompson, 60, is salty and sublime as posh network talk-show host Katherine Newbury in a hoot-out-loud comedy with a side of tears. It raises the question: Why isn't Thompson the lead in every movie?
We meet Newbury as her career — and private life — are crumbling. The chic chat-show queen's ratings are slipping along with her marriage to ailing musician Walter (sexy septuagenarian John Lithgow, 73). Katherine's a piece of work in the Devil Wears Prada vein: unilateral, brusque and demanding, a perfectionist boss who uses the moral high ground to wage war on mediocrity and terrorize her staff.
Enter costar Mindy Kaling's Molly, a young woman of color who steps into the show's hostile all-white-male writing room bringing cupcakes, vulnerability and a female comic sensibility. Molly proceeds to shake up the culture by the power of positive thinking and a very out-of-fashion niceness. She's a good-hearted naif swimming with sharks and sycophants.
There's nothing unexpected about the comedy's narrative arc — Molly will enter stage left with Mary Tyler Moore dreams of making it after all. And she will exit having squeezed her bargain pumps into a place in her dream profession.
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Kaling's script has plenty of zingers that keep the audience chuckling. She doesn't shy away from slapstick where she's the butt of the joke. When Molly pauses on the sidewalk to offer up a positive affirmation, a glossy green bag of garbage knocks her sideways. This is Manhattan, after all.
And credit Kaling for making the surprisingly bold step in contemporary movies of creating two strong and complicated female characters of different generations and classes whose interaction drives the film. Katherine and Molly connect and collide, and it's Molly's integrity and vulnerability that cracks her boss's ossified, entitled sense of self.
Among the movie's many joys is the creation and depiction of Katherine and Walter's codependent marriage. Lithgow leaves a big footprint with relatively few scenes. As the older husband struggling with Parkinson's, he's the one person Katherine allows behind her armor, which can be an uncomfortable place to be. Their reaction to a tabloid scandal is so refreshingly understated and honest that it's conceivable there could be a movie centered solely on them and their convincing partnership.
By crafting complex yet comic characters, Kaling creates an entertaining and engaging balance between humor and pathos. But it's not entirely consistent. Late Night suffers from a clunky choppiness to the writing and directing that keeps the narrative from flowing scene to scene and building organically to a big climax and release.
And, while Katherine gets a well-earned cry, Molly weeps so often that when she blubbers it doesn't have the impact it might have had if it only occurred once or twice, or even three times. Still, the emphasis is on the humor — and whether the jokes are about menopause or white male privilege, this Late Night shakes with laughter.